Weekly Word Watch: lodestar, EGOT, and Land’s End
The Word Watch is back this week, and we’re ready to satisfy your lexical cravings with some newsy words ranging from politics to punctuation.
Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an anonymous op-ed from a senior official in the Trump administration. It lambasted President Trump’s ‘amorality’ and ‘impulsiveness’, described efforts of internal ‘resistance’ to his governance, and sent political observers into a flurry of speculation over the identity of the author.
Many seized on one distinctive word used in the piece, lodestar, in a passage praising the late Senator John McCain: ‘We may no longer have Senator McCain. But we will always have his example – a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue. Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them.’
Here, lodestar characterizes McCain as ‘an inspiration or guide’, a figurative use of the word’s literal meaning of a ‘star that guides the course of a ship’, such as the Pole Star. Both senses of the word are recorded in the late 14th century. The lode in lodestar is a variant of load, itself related to lead, and it preserves a lost sense of lode meaning ‘way’ or ‘course’.
Many sleuths noted that Vice President Mike Pence has variously used the word lodestar, suggesting the second-in-command as article’s true author.
BOOM! Just about the only person in all of humanity who has used the word Lodestar in the past is Mike Pence.
The NY Times op-ed uses this word.
Is Mike Pence the Resistance Senior White House official?!
— Ed Krassenstein (@EdKrassen) September 5, 2018
However, experts in stylometry, which examines differences in style across writers, caution that the choice of a prominent word like lodestar may be a red herring. Instead, our analytic lodestar, as it were, should be far less conspicuous items, such as how the author uses everyday words like and, as they are more unconscious – and therefore more potentially revealing.
The anonymous op-ed in The New York Times isn’t the only indictment of the Trump administration making recent headlines. Legendary journalist Bob Woodard, who helped crack US President Nixon’s Watergate scandal, published this week a damning portrait of Trump’s presidency, Fear.
Following its release, one of Trump’s sons, Eric, accused Woodward of seeking to make ‘three extra shekels’ with his book. The choice of shekel, the name for the currency of Israel, met with immediate cries of anti-Semitism. Woodward is not Jewish, but Trump’s critics see shekel as a dog whistle for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of a Jewish-controlled media and stereotypes about money and greed.
Israel first adopted the shekel in 1980 after a decades-long debate over having a currency with a Hebrew name; previously, they used the Israeli pound or lira. Following hyperinflation, a revamped, and current, shekel became legal tender in 1986.
The shekel is indeed a Hebrew word. It ultimately comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘to weigh’, and scholars think ancient Babylonians, Phoenicians, Israelites, and other early Middle Eastern peoples used the shekel as a unit of weight for trading the likes of barley. As the name for the silver coin for the Biblical Israelites, shekel is attested in the Bible in the 16th century.
Shekels has been a slang term in English for ‘money’ since at least the 19th century, but for the Trumps, already dogged by charges of anti-Semitism, shekel is an unfortunate, shall we say, choice of words.
Speaking of legends, one got the EGOT – and made history in doing it. At the 2018 Creative Arts Emmy Awards, artist John Legend became the first black man to achieve the elite EGOT status, an acronym for the four top US entertainment awards and the few who’ve won them: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Legend earned an Emmy for his work in producing Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.
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Two others giants of song, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, joined Legend in EGOT-hood that night, bringing the total members of EGOT-dom up to fifteen. Performer Whoopi Goldberg first broke the EGOT colour barrier in 2002.
EGOT itself won a prize, as far as we’re concerned, in January this year, when the Oxford English Dictionary officially added it to its pages. The acronym is credited to actor Philip Michael Thomas in 1984, when he told Pennsylvania’s Evening Sun of his plan to win an EGOT in the next five years.
Unfortunately for Thomas, Legend beat him to the post as the first black male EGOT. But Thomas’s legacy is still secured. If it weren’t for him, we may not be even talking about EGOTs now.
Meanwhile in Cornwall, UK, the spotlight was on punctuation. In discussing new electoral boundaries this week, the Cornwall Council addressed the names for the areas councillors will represent. On the agenda was how to render the name of the most westerly point on mainland England: the famed landmark of Land’s End.
Councillors noted Land’s End was in some instances signed around town with an apostrophe and in others, not. One, Sue James, consulted with Craig Weathermill, a Cornish historian, who put his expertise behind the inclusion of an apostrophe. The council voted unanimously to add the apostrophe – and that was the end of it.
— BBC One (@BBCOne) September 12, 2018
The matter of the apostrophe, however, would be moot if Cornwall went with a native Cornish name for Land’s End, Penn an Wlas, which has the same sense. Wlas means ‘land’ or ‘country’ and penn, ‘head’ or ‘end’, preserved in the name of the larger peninsula where Land’s End finds its home: Penwith. The Cornish penn is kin to another native Celtic language to its north, Welsh, whose pen (‘head’) supplies the first part of Pendragon, the title of ancient Briton chieftains and an epithet of the father of King Arthur.